The Gathering

Two years ago, I had a letter from Earnest.  He was writing to tell me that he was leaving the priesthood, though he had decided to stay with his little school in the high mountains….’I have no place left to live but in my own heart,’ he wrote, meaning he would conduct his life as before, but on privately different terms.

And I thought this was the stupidest stuff I had ever heard until, sitting on a stool in the Shelbourne bar, I wondered what might happen if I just carried on as usual, told  no one, changed nothing, and decided not to be married after all.

And I wondered how many people around me are living with and sleeping with and laughing with their spouses on just this basis, and I wondered how sad they were.  Not very, by the looks of it.  Not sad at all.

The Gathering, by Anne Enright, is the story of Veronica, and her coming to terms with the suicide of her favorite brother, Liam.   It is her unenviable task to travel from Ireland to England to recover his body, and bring it home for the funeral.

Veronica is falling apart following her brother’s death.  In addition to her grief, she harbors a secret, or at least, she thinks she does.  She is hazy on her memory of an incident during their childhood, and fears that perhaps it may have been the first step toward Liam’s eventual death.   Her struggle with this memory, with trying to remember what did and what did not happen, and to whom, unravels her happiness and further strains her marriage.  You get the feeling that she has never been a joyous person, she is too cold and critical for that, but she did have love and happiness, which are currently overwhelmed by her sadness and her memories.  She is a woman in the process of falling apart.

Veronica tells the story of her family, going back to the day her grandparents first met, coming forward to her mother’s passive life, and then to that of her many brothers and sisters.  She harbors both love and disdain for her mother, whose 17 pregnancies, resulting in 12 children and 5 painful miscarriages, Veronica sees as proof of her mother being unwilling to refuse her father’s carnal desires.  That her mother might have shared these desires never seems to cross her mind.

Already a cold person, Veronica shuts down emotionally in the period following her brother’s death.  She resents her husband for wanting sex so soon after the death, resents him trying to prove to her that she is still alive.  After that first encounter, she refuses to come to bed any more, instead staying awake all night, every night, drinking wine and waiting for him to get up for work before she herself collapses into bed.

The title of the book, The Gathering, made me think this was going to be the story of a family coming together, and of the joys and recriminations that might come to light at such a gathering.  But at least 3/4 of the book is told in her meandering way, as she travels through memories and stories, while on the way to and from England on her sad task.   Only at the end do we meet her siblings, and find ourselves at a surprisingly muted event.

If I were to read this review up until this point, I would think that The Gathering isn’t really worth reading, and that Veronica is a character that I would not like.   But Enright’s writing is so beautiful, and she is able to bring you into Veronica’s mind so well that you feel sympathy for her, for what she’s been through, for her upbringing.  You hope for her to find peace with her family again, and joy within her marriage.  The end is too ambiguous for that, and I walked away feeling someone dissatisfied.

I have seen The Gathering compared to The Dubliners, by James Joyce.  One big difference is that The Gathering is a novel, while The Dubliners is a book of short stories. I’ve only read the most famous in that book, The Dead, which is a story that touched me very deeply.  The Gathering is similar in its prose and imagery, and in that the book seems to meander along until finally you get to the end, and it turns out that the end is what you were waiting for all along.  In The Dead, however, that end is a beautiful respite, and a glimpse into love that is not jealous or unkind, despite the jealousy and unkind thoughts that were there moments before…a love that transcends this mortal world, however mortal the players.  The Gathering offers no such great reward.

I would recommend this book to people who love beautiful, evocative writing.  Enright is a gifted writer in this aspect.  I would not recommend this book for anyone seeking an easy, quick read, as the twists and turns and dark subject matter make this a somewhat difficult read.

~ DoSoEvAyMo

I have a lot that I’m hoping to accomplish for work.  We’ll see how that goes.    I’d like to make something yummy for dinner.  Turkey chili perhaps?

Possession: A Romance

Maud shivered, as she always shivered, on reading this document.  What had Christabel thought, when she read it?  Where had Christabel been, and why had she gone, and where had Randolph Ash been, between July 1859 and the summer of 1860?  There was no record, Roland said, of Ash not being at home.  He had published nothing during 1860 and had written few letters – those there were, were dated from Bloomsbury, as usual.  LaMotte scholars had never found any satisfactory explanation for Christabel’s apparent absence at the time of Blanche’s death, and had worked on the supposition of a quarrel between the two women.  This quarrel now looked quite different, Maude thought, without becoming clearer.

I finally finished reading Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt.  I’m sorry to say that I never felt truly drawn into the story.  It reminded me of something my mom once said when I was working on my Masters Degree in Comparative Literature.  She said, “I’m not a huge fan of ‘capital L Literature’.  What I want to read is a good story.”  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, and I would argue that the best of ‘capital L Literature’ is great because of the story, not because of the genius of the author.  Reading Possession, I never got sucked in, I was always waiting for the story to have some passion, some caring for the characters, some real drama.  I found it had tenderness toward its characters, and there is real skill in the way that Byatt interweaves diaries, letters, and narrative to tell her story.  But again, I couldn’t make myself care about any of it.

The book starts with a young, frustrated academic, Roland Mitchell, doing some research on his subject, (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Ash.  He comes across some unfinished letters in Ash’s handwriting, tucked amongst the pages of a book in the library.  Impulsively, he tucks the letters into his wallet, rather than alerting the librarian of their existence, or at least tucking them back where they belong.  The letters appear to be to a woman that Ash has just met, and feels a connection to.  He wants to see more of her.  But who is she?  Scholarship on Ash is that he was a faithful husband, happily married to the same woman for over 40 years.  Roland asks around, and ends up entering into a partnership with Maud Bailey, a scholar who studies the life and works of a contemporary of Ash, Christabel LaMotte, the woman for whom Ash’s letter was meant.

Roland and Maud go on a search for the truth, which they are hiding from their contemporaries in LaMotte and Ash studies, hoping to be the ones to break the story to the academic world, which would be a huge feather in their caps, and a great help in their careers as well.  The rest of the book travels between their story and that of LaMotte and Ash, which is told mainly through their letters to one another, through their respective poems, and through diaries written by Ash’s wife and LaMotte’s cousin.  It’s intriguing enough, with plenty of twists and turns and surprises to keep the reader interested.  Unfortunately, for me, Byatt kept her characters at an emotional distance, so while I was slightly interested in finding out what had happened between these Victorian poets 150 years ago, I sort of resented the amount of time and effort that I had to put into the discovery.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, so I read it for my Man Booker reading challenge, as well as my Book Awards Challenge.

Purple Hibiscus

Kambili is a 15 year old girl, growing up in Nigeria with her older brother, Jaja, and their parents, Eugene and Beatrice. Eugene is a very wealthy, influential man, one of the few who dares to stand up and tell the truth about the local government by means of the newspaper he owns. Theirs is a charmed life, with Eugene donating richly to the poorer neighbors, to the church, and to the many charities he supports. They live in a compound surrounded by high walls, and they have servants to cook and clean and drive for them. They have cable television and luxurious cars, plenty of meat to eat, and the respect of the community. Kambili and her brother are consistently first in their class, and are well regarded by their teachers.

Of course, when you scratch the surface, things are not as wonderful as they seem. The family lives in fear of Eugene, who is known to fly into rages, and dishes out extreme punishments for any infraction against his strict schedules and his unattainable standards. He is a religious fanatic, and fears that his family might become possessed by demons if they do not keep their minds and bodies clean, work hard and worship along with him, and follow his ever directive with no questions asked.

Eugene’s sister, Ifeoma, convinces Eugene to let Kambili and Jaja come and visit her family for a few days, a visit which opens their eyes to the world around them. Ifeoma is a widowed University Professor in a time of turmoil, when the Universities did not have the money to pay the salaries of their staff. She and her children live a very meager existence, constantly trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Ifeoma’s daughter, Amaka, is very jealous of the luxuries that her cousins enjoy, while they marvel at her easy relationship with her mother, and begin to unclench their muscles and thrive in this house, which is full of laughter and genuine respect. Kambili, in the mean time, falls in love with Ifeoma’s friend, a young priest named Father Amadi.

As the two households become closer, Nigeria falls under a military junta, and events begin to spiral out of control.

Purple Hibiscus is beautifully written, with glimpses of fanaticism, the effects of colonialism and missionary dominance, and a culture fiercely subdued but not completely mastered. The narrative was a bit more straightforward than Adichie‘s other wonderful novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and I would happily recommend either of them. She is obviously a gifted writer, and I look forward to her next book.

The Amber Spyglass

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

~Milton’s Paradise Lost

The Amber Spyglass is the third book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It continues the story of Lyra and Will, two young adolescents with extraordinary powers. Lyra’s power is that she can read the althiometer, first described in The Golden Compass. With the althiometer, Lyra can find the answer to any question she can think of, from something as basic as where to find someone who is lost, to whether it is right or wrong to go into the afterlife and try to rescue the ghosts of everyone who has ever lived.

Will wields the Subtle Knife. with which he can cut doors between worlds. Lyra and Will come from different worlds, in a multiverse based on the concept that worlds split off from one another, and these universes continue to develop parallel to one another. Some universes are more parallel than others. For example, Will comes from our universe, or one almost exactly like it, and lives in Oxford, England. Lyra also lives in Oxford, but in her universe, there are no automobiles, and a person’s soul lives outside of their body, in the form of an animal, called a daemon. Other universes are very different, such as the one inhabited by the mulafa, an intelligent race of beings that look something like elephants, though they have evolved to travel by attaching large wheel-like pods from trees to their feet.

I really enjoyed The Golden Compass, and my favorite book in the series was The Subtle Knife. The friendship that develops between Lyra and Will is wonderful to watch, and their characters are well thought out and have a lot of depth. I’m sorry to say that The Amber Spyglass was my least favorite book of the trilogy. Perhaps it tries to do too much, but it had a somewhat disjointed feel to it, and was a bit heavy handed in its treatment of religious metaphors. In that way, it reminded me of my least favorite of the Narnia Series, The Last Battle. Where The Last Battle was overtly religious, and The Amber Spyglass was overtly atheistic (or at least agnostic…there is a suggestion somewhere that perhaps there was a creator), they both tried too hard, in my mind, to hit you over the head with their main point.

The overall message was fairly traditional, that love conquers all, that it is our responsibility to use power for good, and that personal sacrifice for the betterment of all is sacrifice well made. The fight between good and evil was represented in new and interesting ways, though the end was somewhat simplistic and disappointing. I would recommend this book, because the series is incomplete without it, as The Subtle Knife ended with a cliffhanger. But this book doesn’t stand up, in my mind, as well as either of the other two books in the trilogy.

The Amber Spyglass was long listed for the 2001 Man Booker Prize, and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, as well as the British Book Award, and was an ALA Notable Book.

Atonement

I thought I would publish this book review, which I wrote over a week ago but was waiting until after the weekend to post, and then things changed in my world and I forgot about it. But it’s been sitting there, waiting patiently, and it gets the pity party off of the top of my page. Can’t spend too much time feeling sorry for myself, can I? No. So, here’s a book review from last week.

I’m writing this review a bit differently than I have in the past, in that I’m not quite half-way through the book, and I’ve got a lot of thoughts swimming around in my head that I want to get out and on ‘paper’, so I can just get back to the book without them clouding my brain. They’re not big, important, deep thoughts. Just thoughts.

First, this book makes me want to smoke. It just seems like the kind of book that a person should read in a big chair or something, smoking a cigarette ala’ Out of Africa, sort of to show how serious I am while reading it. Not in a way that is connected in any way whatsoever to smoking in real life.

Next, and most importantly at this point, I’m having a heck of a time getting into this novel. Thus far, the tale is told mainly in the voice of a young girl, 11-year old Briony, who witnesses several incidents one scorching hot day in 1935. She witnesses a scene between her 21-year old sister (Cecilia) and their neighbor (Robbie), who is about the same age, which she completely misunderstands. He sends a note through Briony, apologizing to Cecilia for the scene, which Briony reads and finds repugnant and somewhat threatening. Lastly, she happens upon a violent crime, her 13-year old cousin being raped by a man, in the dark, whom Briony identifies as Robbie. OK, this is bugging me, because it so clearly wasn’t Robbie committing the crime, and there are clues leading in that give that fact away. It bugs me that Briony ignores these clues, as does everyone around her. Her insistence that she knows beyond any doubt that Robbie committed the crime is frustrating.

That’s all for now, I’ll write more when I finish the book.
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OK, I finished the book, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. Of course, the repercussions of Briony’s insistence of Robbie’s guilt are immediate and dire. That he is so quickly shut out of the family, and that obvious clues are ignored speaks to the fact that he is lower class, the son of a servant, whereas the girl, and the actual rapist, are both upper class, and therefore the blame easily goes to the poor man, rather than the rich one.

As early as the week that followed, the glazed surface of conviction was not without its blemishes and hairline cracks. Whenever she was conscious of them, which was not often, she was driven back, with a little swooping sensation in her stomach, to the understanding that what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible. It was not simply her eyes that told her the truth. It was too dark for that. Even Lola’s face at eighteen inches was an empty oval, and this figure was many feet away, and turned from her as it moved back around the clearing. But nor was this figure invisible, and its size and manner of moving were familiar to her. Her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew adn had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes. So when she said, over and over again, I saw him, she meant it, and was perfectly honest, as well as passionate. What she meant was rather more complex than what everyone else so eagerly understood, and her moments of unease came when she felt that she could not explain these nuances. She did not even seriously try. There were no opportunities, no time, no permission. Within a couple of days, no, within a matter of hours, a process was moving fast and well beyond her control.

The second segment in the book is told from Robbie’s point of view. A few years have gone by, and he is in France, retreating from the German army, from Dunkirk to the ocean, where they await a squadron to remove them from France. This segment was the most compelling to me. Robbie’s internal world is much less convoluted than Briony’s, his motives much more straightforward. His shame at leaving is palpable, as is his desire to get home in one piece to Cecilia. The nuance of his desire to get home, his confusion over his feelings, and his understanding that war removes the labls of guilty and innocent, are very moving.

Through the material of his coat he felt for the bundle of her letters. I’ll wait for you. Come back. The words were not meaningless, but they didn’t touch him now. It was clear enough – one person waiting for another like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion. Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat. Everyone in the cellar was waiting, everyone on the beach. She was waiting, yes, but then what? He tried to make her voice say the words, but it was his own he heard, just below the tread of his heart. He could not even form her face.

..what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we’ve witnessed each other’s crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? Down here in the cellar we’ll keep quiet about it.

The third segment of the book is mainly Briony’s point of view again. It is 1940, and she is working as a nurse in a military hospital in London. She has been changed in ways she could not have imagined, both by the war, and by the outfall of her accusation of Robbie in the rape of her cousin. She has grown up a lot, and is faced with the task of seeking Robbie and Cecilia’s forgiveness. She is looking for atonement for her insistance at that earlier time, when she now knows the truth of what happened that day, even more than Cecilia and Robbie do.

I very much liked the book, at least the second half. The writing was beautiful, and painted a picture that was at the same time bleak and lush. Not an easy feat.

The Inheritance of Loss

I finally finished The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. I was so looking forward to reading this book, as I had heard nothing but good things about it. I even asked a woman on BART if she were enjoying, as she was reading it while on the way into the city, and she said that she was engrossed, and couldn’t pull herself away. I started this book almost a month ago, and I’m sad to say that I had a really difficult time getting into it. It’s sad, because the book is beautifully written. It’s the congruent story of a retired judge in Northern India, his granddaughter, his cook, and the cook’s son, who has left to find his fortune in New York. All of this during the Kalimpong uprising in the mid 1980s. From Widipedia, about Kalimpong, which gives a bit of background to the story:

Kalimpong is a hill town nestled in the Shiwalik Hills (or Lower Himalaya) in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Between 1986 and 1988, the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland and Kamtapur based on ethnic lines grew strong. Riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), led by C K Pradhan, and the West Bengal government reached a standoff after a forty-day strike. The town was virtually under a siege, leading the state government to call in the Indian army to maintain law and order. This led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a body that was given semi-autonomous powers to govern the district. Though Kalimpong is now peaceful, the issue of a separate state still lingers. In July 2004, the generally tranquil town was catapulted into national and international headlines after Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, a murderer wanted by Scotland Yard, was traced and found to be residing in Kalimpong.

The Inheritance of Loss shifts between the third world of this town and its surrounding area and the first world of New York, where Biju, the son of the cook, has illegally immigrated to try for a better life. But there he finds mostly humiliation, hard work, and very little pay. The book concentrates on the pain of exile and the arrows still slung and festering from the colonialist era.

He could not talk to his father; there was nothing left between them but emergency sentences, clipped telegram lines shouted out as if in the midst of a war. They were no longer relevant to each other’s lives except for the hope that they would be relevant. He stood with his head still in the phone booth studded with bits of stiff chewing gum and the usual FuckShitCockDickPussyLoveWar, swastikas, and hearts shot with arrows mingling in a dense graffiti garden, too sugary too angry too perverse-the sick sweet rotting mulch of the human heart.

If he continued his life in New York, he might never see his pitaji again. It happened all the time; ten years passed, fifteen, the telegram arrived, or the phone call, the parent was gone and the child was too late. Or they returned and found they’d missed the entire last quarter of a lifetime, their parents like photograph negatives. And there were worse tragedies. After the initial excitement was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all, and people, they forget, or they become accustomed to its absence. They returned and found just the facade; it had been eaten from inside, like Cho Oyu being gouged by termites from within.

So, why couldn’t I get sucked into this story? Why was it that the TV, the internet, cooking, and even cleaning pulled me away from the story? I’m not sure. I found much of the writing to be hauntingly beautiful, but the story ultimately unsatisfying. When I finished it the other night, I’m sorry to say that I was relieved, and ready to move on to my next book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and I read it for both my Book Awards Reading Challenge and my Man Booker Challenge.

In For a Penny, In For a Pound…

I’m still working on my Book Awards Reading Challenge, which runs from July 2007 through the end of June, 2008, and requires participants to read 12 award winning books in 12 months. In addition, I just joined the Graphic Novels Challenge, and the TBR Challenge. I’m hoping to join a Non Fiction Reading Challenge as well, though that hasn’t been announced yet. So, what the heck, I’ll join one more, the Man Booker Challenge. The rules of this challenge are to read 6 winners of the Man Booker Prize, or books that were short or long listed for the prize, in 2008. OK, I’m in, though for this challenge, I’m cheating a little, and including two books that are already on my Book Awards Reading Challenge. Here, then, are my 6 choices for the Man Booker Challenge, hosted by Dewey from The Hidden Side of a Leaf:

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. I’m also reading this for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her newer book, Half of a Yellow Sun, and I LOVED it, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan. This one is also for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I’ve been avoiding seeing the movie until I read this, but it’s been hard, because I’ve heard such wonderful things about the film.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. This is the third installment in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Golden Compass already, so now I’ll have to read The Subtle Knife, and then I can get to this one. So maybe the fact that I have to read two books for one challenge makes up for Atonement and Inheritance of Loss? No?

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

I know you must be horribly bored by all of these posts having to do with what I’m planning on reading this year. I’ll write something else soon, I promise.